The monasteries and the people.

 The church organisation that prevailed in Scotland until the Reformation was essentially a monastic one. By virtue of their wealth, territorial possessions and their real or presumed sanctity, the monasteries exercised a predominating influence on the people. The system replaced the simple and selfless Celtic church of St Columba  with  stately buildings and its throng of men and women devoted to the service of God. Theology and religious differences aside, the mix of secular ( who worked among the people) and regular ( who were in monasteries etc)  clergy and the practices that it produced, had a direct and generally beneficial impact on the common man and women as Scotland emerged from the Middle Ages. Later, the wealth of the church would be at the heart of Scotland`s politics as greed overcame conscience and the exercise of praemunire - the assertion of the royal supremacy and submission of the clergy.

The particular beneficial contribution of the monasteries was in economic growth -  they deserve much credit for being the progenitors of an economic revolution in the Lowlands with many new techniques in agriculture. Foreign trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was almost primitive with quantities of wool hides and skins being exchanged for necessities. As such trade was limited to the near shores of Ireland and to Flemish towns who provided many of the tradesmen who settled in England and Scotland. Until they and new ideas were brought in the people still worked a family system, working only for the benefit of the immediate family. Improved techniques, such as in the ancient skills of leather tanning, led to improved skills and quality goods that could be better traded. The emerging crafts were themselves subject of management by the king, thus Malcolm IV  granted the Abbey of Scone  the privileges of having a smith, a skinner and a souter (shoemaker) in 1146.  In 1222  Alexander II granted Aberdeen permission to have a merchant guild which excluded the crafts of fullers and weavers. The development of the craft guilds and the merchant guilds was a natural consequence. Their development was slow but their control of quality. price of goods and trade with the Continent meant that in time, they became the economic engine of Scotland.

The Border abbeys were especially successful in sheep farming and rearing of horses; at Newbattle the monks were engaged in coal and lead mining; and in Coupar, Fife there was development of arable farming.  The monks of Clydesdale and at  Lindores are credited with developing horticulture including pears and grapes, of beekeeping and the erection of the first  mills to grind corn. Further north, Arbroath was developed into a thriving fishing port and the harbour was maintained by the Abbey at its own expense. One of the most highly valued privileges at Arbroath and in common with her sister Abbeys, was to hold their lands as a regality, free from external judges and courts, and able to administer their own justice. This delegated enormous power, that of life and death included, to the Abbots and Priors and of course raised their status in the community ( and made many of the nobility jealous).

As improving and progressive landlords the monasteries encouraged the modern system of cultivation under lease. Their tenants were generally better treated than the vassals of the nobility and were not subject to military service thus enabling other, peaceable, pursuits. Beneath the walls of the Abbeys grew up prosperous villages of agriculturists tilling small crofts of their own, with common pasturage and woodlands nearby. The `steelbow` arrangements as they were called, enabled the poor occupier of land who could not afford to stock it, to lease land,  cattle, seed and stock necessary to cultivate it. In time and given modest success, such crofters commuted the loan to a monetary payment. Other skills and trades developed in this environment, particularly those in what we would call the arts. The monks were the repository for learning and with it the transcription of the Holy Word ( in Latin); but ornaments and the like were required for the monasteries and satellite churches which created demand for metal working skills, engraving; woodworking, carving, leather working, weaving fine cloth, and so forth. The development of the trades led  in turn to the townships and burghs of later years with its burgher merchants and the trade Guilds.  Ironically the growth of the towns was a magnet for poor unemployed labourers as well as the itinerant beggars and vagabonds,  which emphasised the feudal class system.

In many towns the church, with its numerous officials  and costly apparatus, had to be maintained at the public expense and was especially resented by the crafts. On each of them lay the obligation to keep an altar and a priest in the parish church, to provide lights and other needs for ceremonials and produce at some cost, an annual play in honour of their patron saint. For all classes the first and all important need was to pay the annual rent to their respective superior and this determined to a large extent  the organisation and government of the town. The merchant burgesses resented the demands of the church whom they saw as parasites, no longer ( as in earlier times) making a material input to the economy, but clinging to the means of wealth developed from the labour of subject people. Meanwhile their status also had obligations in warding (policing) the town, contributing to the cost of maintaining walls and dykes, appearing properly geared at wappinschaws ( arms musters) and service to the town militia in the event of raids or disturbances. By the time of the Reformation the monasteries had moved from being a beneficent economic organisation to an anachronism without the power, or the will, to adjust itself to the new social order. Against this background the towns, rather  than the country dwellers, were the focus of discord and the drivers for change when they were faced with the national debate on religion.

The theological issues, along with the conduct and excesses of the Pope and his representatives, were highly visible factors in the Reformation and the issues were expounded on by the Reforming leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and in Scotland by John Knox and Andrew Melville. The worldliness and debauchery of the Catholic church which had gained ground in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was deeply offensive to the Protestants ( Calvinists) who preferred the simplicity and literal application of the Scriptures. In this the people encountered the down side of monastical rule. The monasteries had been fostered in every conceivable way by kings and nobility but at the expense of the modest parochial church. This wedge between the `haves` and the `have nots ` festered as the worldly minded local parish priest eked out an existence on a petty wage of probably no more than ten marks a year (roughly seven pounds). The consequence was that the parochial clergy were not necessarily the most learned or dedicated, many preached and catechised infrequently - if at all, and were held in low esteem by the people. When the storm of the Reformation developed the rich religious houses paid the penalty for the injustice  and neglect of the parishes  - all were swept away.

The common man`s experience was inevitably with priests, monks  and the Friars that proliferated at that time. The cleric and historian Rev.Thomas McCrie in Sketches of Church History,  describes the situation in the sixteenth century thus :

Swarms of priests and confessors infested every country - penetrating, like the plague of frogs of Egypt, into the recesses of every family, from the chamber of the king down to the hut of the meanest cottager, and polluting everything they touched.

The once lowly monks had drifted away from their isolated cells, their teaching and helping the poor, and had taken to worldly ways. Even the very poor who existed on alms were aggrieved that the mendicant friars were taking the alms from their mouths, which generated "The Beggars Warning" of January 1558, demanding that the friars remove themselves from the realm. This was frequently compounded by either the absence of a parish priest - the living having been given away; and the lack of supervision by the bishops. The income from monastery lands encouraged the Abbots and monks to take up the role and trappings of wealth . It also rubbed salt into the wounds of the common people who were hard pressed to pay rents and tithes from their meagre production of barley, oats, livestock, eggs, milk, cheese. Even death meant that tribute or payment was taken by the Church who would usually take the most valuable animal and the best of the deceasedís clothing The priests were much employed in making money from the practice of cursing eg the public denunciation of a thief for his act. This encouraged the belief that a wrong might be corrected by imprecation which would be done, at a price, through writing letters or by declaration from the pulpit. The system of buying Indulgences was another increasing burden that Luther had highlighted in his famous Theses.

At the other end of the spectrum greed became a major factor in relations with the church which by the late fifteenth century owned over half of Scotland`s wealth, mainly in the form of land.  James III (r 1460-88) was the first monarch who studiously crushed  the liberties of the church and deprived Cathedrals and Abbacies of the right to elect their head. In this a new field of corruption, barter and simony became the rule and the royal exchequer benefited. The King and nobility were still generous with endowments, perhaps driven by conscience and fears of the afterlife,  but also they began to covet the vast lands that the monasteries had accumulated. Through the use of  the system of patronage they placed family and friends into vacancies and diverted the revenues associated with the post to their own use. The King was as bad as any in this practice and systematically  gave or sold to laymen Abbacies, Priories and Parochial livings. 

Neither was it helped by the practice of the kings having their sons appointed to benefices - Alexander Stewart natural son of James IV, held the abbey of Dunfermline and priory of Coldingham , and made Archbishop of St Andrews when aged twelve. James V was no better with his elder son James appointed Abbot of Kelso aged five and Melrose when aged fourteen. His younger brother, also James (Regent Moray) was Prior of St Andrews aged five; Robert was Abbot of Holyrood  at five; John Prior of Coldingham aged ten. Adam another natural son, was made Prior of Charterhouse, Perth. Worst was perhaps George Wishart, Chancellor of Scotland, Archbishop of St Andrews, and rector or prebendary  of twenty two churches. With examples like this the divide between the hierarchy and the local clerics (none of whom were allowed to get married) widened such that by 1549 church councils were enforcing strict rules of conduct and discipline. But too late.

Other objections were to absent clerics, and endowment of monasteries by the bishops of the living from a parish which diverted tithes to the monasteries. These customs and practices underpinned the considerations of the new religion by many of the nobles who  fought hard to retain patronage, and their hold on estates previously acquired from the church by fair means and foul.  The Sees of St Andrews , Elgin and Aberdeen  became almost hereditary appendages of the families of Stuart,  Hepburn and Gordon respectively.

The consequence of this mixed bag of discontent was that the Protestant Reformation gained support from rich and poor alike, although for widely different, earthly, reasons. The Church (of Rome)  itself recognised the problems but left it to the local bishops to deal with. By the 16th century the middle class had grievances against the church and the antiquated ecclesiastical courts that still governed much of their lives. They treated the management of the monasteries with contempt, and scoffed at the superstition of a simpler past when the clergy were the  natural leaders of the community.  As the Crown took greater charge of affairs the people turned to the King and his  government, rude though it first was, to satisfy their material needs and aspirations.  The church had not been very successful  in keeping their religious aspirations alive. It was not that men were opposed to the Church at this juncture, but they considered its privileges to be excessive, its disciplinary courts were vexatious, its officials too numerous, and the wealth was devoted to purposes that had ceased to be of the greatest importance.

In England there was significant change taking place much earlier than in Scotland; these changes set the ground rules that Scotland would follow, particularly after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. By the end of Edward I reign (1272-1307) there were more than enough monasteries than were needed, and the character of monasticism began to change. As  the State grew stronger and Parliament emerged as a power, so many of the humanitarian duties  delegated to and exercised by the church, passed to local communities. `Ere long the benefactions for social purposes became devoted to colleges, hospitals and schools.  Such benefits included the founding of New College, Oxford by William of Wykeham who had bought land from the monasteries for the purpose. In 1497 John Alcock, Bishop  of Ely,  obtained permission to suppress the decrepit nunnery of St Rhadegund in Cambridge and build Jesus College.  In 1515 Bishop Fox of Winchester was prevailed upon to make the statutes of his Brasenose College based on learning rather than theology.

 In parallel with the awakening of the church to its problems, there was the development of a national awareness and identity during the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509). Social change under Henry VII saw the gradual depression of the barons and a deliberate policy to spare the pockets of the people at large. The people were willing to leave the government in the hands of the king so long as he kept order and guarded their commercial interests. Thus Henry VII soon found that he could do what he liked as long as he did not ask for money; thus the nobles, the rich landowners and the wealthy merchants were at the kings mercy. This led to a levelling of class privileges while cautiously heeding the popular interests. As a result the royal power was placed on a strong foundation with government through capable officials who took orders from the king. By this means the power of the old nobility in England passed silently away; the feudal lord was turned into a country gentleman; and the opulent merchants became estate owners and subsequently the financiers of  Parliament.

Attention was also turned to outdated ecclesiastical law eg an Act of Parliament in 1511 did away with sanctuary and the benefit of clergy for murderers. More generally, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Chancellor to Henry VIII (1509-1547), obtained the powers of Papal Legate and the approval of the Pope to close down small monasteries and nunneries where there were less than seven  residents. The displaced monks and nuns were transferred elsewhere and the revenues from the close establishments was specifically allowed to be used for improving education facilities. Wolsey sought to establish a College at Ipswich and was the original founder of Cardinal College, Oxford, later renamed Christs` College. Ironically the closing down of the monasteries and diversion of their incomes for education, set a precedent  that Henry VIII latched onto when he decided to close all such establishments for the benefit of the royal purse; the building of the Royal Navy; and, his war chest for battles with France and Spain.

"This measure of Wolsey`s made all the forest of religious foundations in England to shake, justly fearing  that the king would fell the oaks when the cardinal had begun to cut the underwood."

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